Approaches to the use of online language tools and AI to aid language learning

Adèle Venter, Head of German at WHS, considers how, in a time when Google Translate has insidiously pervaded every homework task, students could be trained to use online language tools and AI to aid their language learning rather than lead them astray.

 

A few years ago – some of my students may still remember it – my Year 10 German class experienced a dark moment. Upon handing back their homework essays, I asked them to write me a note about the extent to which they had used Google Translate to complete their homework.

The atmosphere was grim as they sat writing their confessions.

It reminded me a bit of the confessing sheep in Animal Farm and I almost felt sorry for them. But no – this had to end. I explained to them how I was in fact not assessing their progress and understanding but rather how well (or not – as was still the case at the time) Google’s artificial intelligence manages to translate language completely out of context. I illustrated to them how they were sometimes unable to even translate the German in their essays, and how therefore, they had learnt nothing in the process, making my conscientious attempts to provide feedback on their writing a waste of time.

The Google Translate dilemma

Of course, this has been a much-discussed topic and the bane of foreign language teachers’ lives for some time now, as illustrated by this Twitter joke that did the rounds:

I still stand by everything I had said on that day. And I would like to think that it may have changed their outlook somewhat. But I have since changed my approach to it. Because, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Ultimately, it is also true that the Internet has become enormously useful in helping people with language acquisition. In the first instance, various language-learning applications have seen the light of day and people casually engage with these on various levels. If it means more people are able to buy croissants in France, or have a basic conversation with their grandchildren who live in Italy, it must be a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, the one thing that has remained true for the acquisition of a foreign language is that there is no quick and easy way to do so. I am of the firm belief that to really learn a language, it takes a lot of time, dedication and perseverance, and that your best chance of becoming proficient is to combine the formal learning of its grammar and vocabulary with immersion and exposure in authentic contexts.

Can AI tools play a useful role?

And so my question is mainly: what are the implications of the use of online tools for the dedicated language learner?

As a linguist, I do not deny that I use these myself all the time. But instead of just modelling my use of online dictionaries, conjugators and such, I have decided to engage my students more fully in the conversation so that they can be conscious of the advantages and pitfalls to various tools. I have told my students that I do not consider Google Translate to be one of the seven deadly sins anymore. After all, online translators have made enormous strides in past years, and a student workshop with Mrs Rachel Evans, our Director of Digital Learning, has revealed that more often than not, they tend to translate phrases and sentences, even idioms correctly.

Instead, I spread the message that whatever students do, they must ensure that they remain in charge of the things they write down. If they do not understand what they are writing, or why sentences are formulated in a certain way, they cannot hope to learn from it. I have consequently set up the following rules as guidance:

  1. Always turn to the dictionary first. There are excellent online dictionaries, and it is worth knowing which ones can be trusted to be correct and informative. It is important that they should understand that verified dictionaries offer synonyms, context and more information about the word, which translators do not. Dictionaries are a great source for developing intuition around words in varying contexts. The more advanced student could also draw on etymology. In the making of a linguist, these are skills well worth developing.
  2. Use online technology to enhance knowledge, not replace it. If pupils use the structures they have mastered as a starting point, they could explore replacing elements of the sentence (such as verbs by researching via a dictionary or conjugator).
  3. Keep the channels of communication open. Let your teacher know how you came by a certain word or phrase. I ask my students to highlight phrases they have constructed using a translator and indicate how they researched it. What were they trying to say? Going back to my second rule of course, are there ways of bringing across their meaning, using the structures they can already manage?

At a more advanced level, language learning becomes increasingly adventurous and as students gain independence, they are able to use language tools to develop the sophistication and concision of their expression. It is mainly younger students who experience frustration around their limited ability to express themselves. The following scenario serves as the perfect example of such a problem. A multilingual girl in Year 9 who is used to expressing herself effortlessly in various languages, produces the following sentence:

„Ich liebe Little Women weil es mich zum Weinen brachte.“

I love Little Women because it brought me to tears.

“Brought” as the imperfect form of the mixed verb “to bring” was rather more than I had counted on at her level and true enough, she did not understand the verb she had used, having typed in “it made me cry”. In fact, there is a myriad of grammatical complexities in this sentence that she had not yet mastered; she could not hope to construct such a sentence with her level of skill. Instead, a well-chosen adjective in an opinion phrase would have been within her reach and might have expanded her repertoire.

Learning to be independent and in control

I hope that having an open discussion will help students to become conscious of problems such as the example shown here and encourage them to use verified sources, finding those tools that are worthwhile learning aids. If they approach it with the right mind, these tools could help them to become truly skilled linguists who are able to reflect on elements of language in a sophisticated way. If language teachers can succeed in creating such healthy learning habits, they are likely to make a meaningful contribution towards developing students’ independence and ability to be life-long learners in the age of technology.

Who is in control? The human being.

Global partnerships

Claire Baty, Head of French, considers the importance of global links in education, with particular reference to a developing partnership with a school in India.

“Let us together create pathways for our children connecting local to global”
Rima C Ailawadi, Principal of GD Goenka Public School, Model Town, Delhi

One of the key aims of WHS is for ‘every girl to leave [the school] prepared to shape the society in which she lives and works’. However, we have another responsibility that I think goes hand in hand with this particular aim; helping our students to realise that society is not limited to the local community and that they can and should spread their wings much further afield.

An outstanding education must provide opportunities for students to experience the world beyond their doorstep. Arguably, cultural interaction has never been more important than it is today. Technology enables young people to explore the world from their bedroom but only a few actually experience it. Despite, or perhaps because of, the political uncertainty in Europe young people must go out into the world with the knowledge, skills and attitude needed to thrive in an ever-changing international environment. This means experiencing different cultures, faiths, religions and languages through meaningful and enjoyable collaboration with their peers in other countries.

As a French teacher, I am obviously aware of the fundamental role played by trips abroad in the development of language proficiency. Immersion in the target language and culture is the best way to develop communication skills. Yet, we must not forget that students also gain invaluable life skills from these visits; networking and communication skills, compassion, independence, open-mindedness, to name but a few. These skills empower young people and lead to a more tolerant and empathetic world.

Here at WHS we have embraced the idea of a truly international education, offering our students countless opportunities to experience the world in which they live. Curriculum teaching that immerses Y3 students in the culture of Africa, exchange and study visits to France, Germany, Spain and Japan, community projects in Sri Lanka and Ghana all inspire our girls to make social change on a global scale.

Following on from the success of our other partnerships, WHS is now reaping the benefits of an exciting new connection with GD Goenka Public school in New Delhi, India. This is exciting, not least because the students are able to make friends with someone from a completely different country and culture, but also because we are able to work together on areas of common interest. The students are sharing their ideas, asking questions, carrying out research on behalf of their partners in India and vice versa. The aim is to create some academically enriching presentations on topics such as cultural diversity, freedom of expression in art, the importance of festivals in both cultures, the role of women in Indian society, air pollution and environmental issues affecting Delhi and London, the impact of social media on teenagers in India and the UK, sustainable development. These are just some of the myriad of possible areas of research. That is why a partnership project like this is so exciting, the opportunity to challenge perspectives on global issues, to step outside the ‘Wimbledon Bubble’ and share ideas with young people growing up in a culturally and socially different country.

Global partnerships projects are all about building connections with others, communicating effectively, and learning about other people and from other people. Ultimately encouraging collaboration and understanding between nations. Exchanging intellectual ideas is important, but so too is getting to know those other people. We talk about connecting schools, but it is really about connecting people.[1]

Global partnerships allow students to examine the differences and similarities between different countries and communities; this in turn broadens their perspectives in the classroom. Being able to compare effectively also opens their mind to the world of metacognition. “Once you experience something that challenges your beliefs or defies what you are familiar with, you have the beautiful opportunity to re-evaluate the way you think about your own life as well as the world at large” [2] and that is why global connections should be an intrinsic part of school life.

[1] The British Council
[2] 8 life skills travelling teaches by Kay Rodriguez www.wanderingeducators.com

Learning another language: is it important?

Suzanne Stone, teacher of French at Wimbledon High School, considers the importance of learning a foreign language in the lead up to Brexit.

“Now more than ever, languages education matters. In a climate of political uncertainty and with the prospect of social fragmentation and economic instability, our ability and willingness to speak multiple languages and develop intercultural understanding increase in significance and value. Language skills and cultural agility connect us to our past, define our present and have the potential to transform our future.”

Bernardette Holmes MBE, Director of Speak to the Future, the National Campaign for Languages

***

Autumn term is a traditionally busy one for our Sixth Form linguists, with Year 13 considering their post-A level choices and Year 12 embarking on their post-GCSE courses. Elsewhere, negotiations are still underway as to the shape of this country’s post-Brexit future, with much discussion amongst language teachers, policy makers and industry figures as to its impact on language learning in our schools. As a language teacher at WHS, I strongly believe that language teaching is more important than ever for intercultural understanding and for employment prospects for our students after Brexit.

The removal of learning a foreign language from the compulsory curriculum in state schools in 2004 resulted in a national decline in the number of linguists schools produce, together with a reduction in the range of languages offered. Here at WHS, we continue to promote the joy and relevance of learning the languages we teach and consequently enjoy a growing MFL curriculum and buoyant numbers throughout the school. For our students, attitudes to learning foreign languages are positive and levels of motivation high, as the girls understand that operating in a language other than English is not just enjoyable in itself but a useful, and indeed, necessary skill in their preparation for life beyond WHS.

The British Council’s annual report, Language Trends 2018, details the negative impact that leaving the European Union is having on language learning in some schools, as seen through low student motivation levels and parental attitudes questioning the relevance of language learning in the current climate. Ironically, recent articles have discussed how the UK’s lack of language skills could in fact jeopardise our post-Brexit future. Indeed, the House of Lords debated earlier this year the need for MFL skills to be embedded in the Government’s white paper, Industrial Strategy – Building a Britain fit for the future. Within this context, the educational system needs to catch up with the idea that language skills are not only important but in fact crucial in this global marketplace and thus be offered and encouraged at every key stage.

The national decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE and A level is a worrying trend. Language Trends 2018 also reports that the proportion taking a GCSE language dropped from 76% in 2002, to 49% in 2014 and most recently to 47% in 2017. For A level, entries for some modern languages have seen a decline in numbers, but popularity for post-16 language study for our WHS students remains steady. The separation of AS from A level has enabled some students to continue with a foreign language to complement their existing A level choices. Interestingly, current AS students include those wishing to apply for dentistry, PPE, psychology and economics next year. The versatility of A level language subjects is such that, post A level, our students can continue pure language study to degree level or jointly with other disciplines such as Law, Science, Maths and Engineering, as well as more traditional combinations of Geography, History and English.

Reducing foreign language learning to a minority, optional subject particularly at KS4 will have a worrying impact on the quantity and calibre of linguists entering not only our profession but others too, at a time when, as a nation, we are going to need a greater number of English speakers with competence in foreign languages. Luckily, here at WHS our access to and participation in learning languages are bucking these national trends. Prospective parents are impressed by our language offer throughout the school, student involvement in our many and varied trips is high, and our numbers at both AS and A level are healthy. Perhaps the language teachers of tomorrow can be found enjoying French, German, Spanish, Mandarin or Italian here in our modern language classrooms today.

Further reading:

https://www.britishcouncil.org/research/language-trends-2018

https://stories.swns.com/news/uks-lack-language-skills-jeopardise-post-brexit-future-94504/

https://www.globalvoices.co.uk/languages/how-will-brexit-affect-the-need-for-languages-in-the-uk/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/03/the-guardian-view-on-languages-and-the-british-brexit-and-an-anglosphere-prison

https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/7399d414-80f4-49cc-80a3-e114064735e0?in=17:45:48&out=17:55:20

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/industrial-strategy-building-a-britain-fit-for-the-future

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/21/european-language-brexit-britain

The value of spontaneous speech

Claire Baty, Head of French at Wimbledon High School, considers the importance of spontaneous speech in the Modern Foreign Language classroom.

Like many a Modern Foreign Language teacher at this time of year, I have spent the last few weeks    conducting oral exams. I like this opportunity to work with my students individually. I see oral exams as the chance to shine, to show off all the hard-work done during the year. It’s the only exam that the student is in control of, that they can steer down their path of choice. So why then, do the students have such opposing views? They hate oral exams. Clearly nerves are natural, let’s face it, no one relishes being put on the spot and being recorded at the same time. But the problem goes deeper than simply being nervous about an exam. There is often a big discrepancy between the quality of written work compared to the quality of spoken work. A student who can write at length using a range of subordinate clauses and move comfortably between time frames, reverts to simplistic sentences or one-word utterances when asked to speak spontaneously. Many a time has a parent expressed frustration at their daughter’s inability or unwillingness to speak in the target language when on holiday, despite their excellent grades in MFL at school.

Why is any of this important, you might ask. If the students are getting good results, then does it matter? I would argue that yes, it matters a lot. As a French teacher it is my job to enable my students to communicate, and true communication is not about writing an essay, learning it off by heart and reciting it under exam conditions. True communication is the desire to share experiences and ideas with others. In the words of Nelson Mandela “If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”.  Only by speaking to someone in their own language can we truly begin to understand them, their identity and culture.

 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”.

 

Moreover, speaking another language enables you to experience different attitudes to life, relationships, food and environment. Adam Jacot de Boinod makes this point succinctly in the books “The meaning of Tingo” and “Toujours Tingo”. He states that words change the way we see the world. Take for example that in Hawaiian kapau’u means ‘to drive fish into the waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch’. In Inuit, pukajaw means ‘firm snow that is easy to cut and provides warm shelter’. Jacot de Boinod realised that sometimes a dictionary can tell you more about a culture than a guidebook. (The meaning of Tingo, Adam Jacot de Boinod, p.ix, Penguin Books 2005). My students know this; they want to travel the world and be international citizens. They can see the importance of linguistic knowledge and cultural awareness in the workplace, and it is our job to guide them towards a more spontaneous approach to communication.

Whilst teenage anxiety plays a part in making students reluctant to speak in the target language, it is by no means the only cause. Confident, able students resist our advice to move away from pre-learnt speeches. There is a notable disjuncture between the language needed for a speaking exam in Key Stage 4 and the phrases that would be helpful as a tourist in the country. Whilst the new GCSE specifications go some way towards addressing this, the lack of requirement for transactional language means our students can converse at length about their holiday plans or environmental problems in their local area, but struggle if someone stops them in the street and asks for the time, they panic if the waiter in the café doesn’t stick to his side of the role play when ordering a chocolat chaud! Infrequent lessons in an artificial classroom environment further compound this difficulty, not at all helped by the fact that when the students do muster up the courage to speak in French, the French have a tendency to reply in English.

Guy Claxton, an academic, a cognitive scientist and leading educationalist specialising in well-founded ways of enhancing intelligence, spoke to us recently about The Learning Power Approach and the importance of teaching learners to teach themselves. He made a number of points that resonated with me in terms of their pertinence in this discussion. Firstly, that it is our job as language teachers to equip the girls with the traits and skills to cope outside of the classroom, to be independent enough to flourish. Secondly, if we want students to be able to do something, then we have to coach it, build it up gradually by providing them with structured opportunities to speak spontaneously:

  • Key phrases on the wall and learning mats to help build complexity into spontaneity
  • The use of listening exercises to model the language we want the students to use rather than just to assess their understanding of a topic
  • Effective vocabulary Focussing on verbs to enable responses in complete sentences.
  • Scaffolding is necessary in Y7 and 8 to build confidence.
  • Target language use needs to be built into classroom routines and bravery must be rewarded.
  • Support should be gradually withdrawn in Y9 so that by Y11 spontaneity is more likely.

These practices are essential to good language teaching, they are the bones of our lesson plans. But whilst they might encourage pupils to talk, do they encourage spontaneous speech? Gianfranco Conti, PhD and co-author of ‘The Language Teacher toolkit’, winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award and founder of www.language-gym.com would argue that true spontaneous speech is without prompts. “[speaking tips] refer but to the very embryonal stage of spontaneous talk, what […] I refer to as the ‘imitative’ stage. However, in order to bring our learners from the ability to ‘parrot’ phrases on the wall or on writing mats to what applied linguists call ‘autonomous speaking competence’ it takes way more”. We need to expose our students to native speakers, whether that be through trips, language assistants, other bilingual students or simply authentic audio and visual material such as radio, music and films. We need to encourage peer to peer interaction and exercises that focus on the communication of a message and less on the accuracy. Cloze exercises, speed dating conversations and dictagloss should be prioritised.

Here at WHS, Modern Foreign Languages are hugely popular. Students enjoy the variety of an MFL lesson and the satisfaction gained from learning something brand new. French, German and Spanish continue to be popular choices at GCSE and A Level. Speaking exams will always be nerve-wracking but I would like my students to feel proud when they can confidently develop their answers. I would like them to experience a sense of joy at being completely understood when speaking French in France. I want to enable them to speak with the same enthusiasm and conviction with which they express ideas in their mother-tongue. Above all I would like my pupils to want to communicate at every given opportunity. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire, non?

“Why are German Kindergartens so successful?”

Germany

Sofia Justham Bello, Year 12, tells us more about a recent work experience trip to a Kindergarten in Germany, focusing on the differences in educational practice from her own education.

This blog is based on my work experience in a German Kindergarten in Schwäbisch Hall, Southern Germany, which was arranged by the Goethe Institut. The Goethe Institut promotes the study of German abroad and encourages international cultural exchange, through language lessons, lectures, courses and libraries.

I entered a logo-designing competition in September for the Friends Of The Goethe Institut London, and won, along with 9 other 16 year olds in the UK, a work-shadowing trip to Germany. I worked at a Kindergarten which had children from ages three to six (it involved a lot of singing, going for walks in the forest, and even carpentry!) I really liked how the children there had the freedom to play and the multi-cultural aspect of the Kindergarten was uplifting, given events that are happening in the world today. I also might want to work in education so it was a useful experience.

The system of the German Kindergarten is important to understand why my work experience there was so inspiring. It is commonplace knowledge that the actual word “Kindergarten” in German, literally denotes as a “children’s garden”. Kindergartens were established as a pre-school educational approach based on social interaction through singing, playing and more practical activities such as painting, and arts and crafts.

Arts and crafts: “Basteln” are very important to German Children and integral to German culture; when I worked at the Kindergarten the children were preparing “Laterne”, lanterns, for the traditional festival for children- ‘St. Martin’s Day”; whereon the 11th of November Kindergarten children walk the streets holding their lanterns that they made.

These creative teaching methods ensure that children interact with others and thus transition successfully from home to school.

Historically, such “institutions” for young children originated from Bavaria in Germany and arose in the late 18th Century in order to help families support their children whilst both parents worked. Nonetheless they were not called “Kindergartens” at this point. In fact the term was later coined by Friedrich Fröbel who created a “play and activity” institute in 1837. He renamed his institute Kindergarten in 1840, reflecting his belief that children should be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden”.

This idea of children flourishing “like plants in a garden”, and the independence connoted with this image, was evident in the Kindergarten that I worked in in Schwäbisch Hall. On arrival I noticed the immediate differences between my nursery experience, and the “Kindergarten” experience the children were receiving in Germany. The teachers working there were shocked that I began school at the age of four, whereas in Germany, Kindergarten is a process that goes from ages three all the way up to six year olds. The site also had a “Kinderkrippe” upstairs, which is a crèche, so essentially up to six years of your life could take place there, which is a huge part of your childhood. Hence the responsibility the teachers have to shape their childhood is huge.

The teaching approach there encourages the young children to think and act independently. Moreover there is a huge focus on nature, and everyday the children would go on a walk and thus connect with nature. The first day was “Waldtag”, day of the forest, which is a national scheme run by the government to encourage children to explore German forests. We spent a long day walking, running, and feeding animals, like goats and sheep. In the afternoon we stopped to have a break and the children were able to play. One child approached me repeatedly saying the word “Säge” which means a “Saw”; I thought that this had got lost in translation, but to my surprise the children began to saw at the forest ground, constructing small houses out of branches, with minimal supervision from the teachers.

It was evident, from just one such example that the children there have more freedom to play, no pressure to read or write (which naturally comes later on) and thus their childhood is extended and their collaborative skills are improved. The older children took care of the younger ones, and overall it was an extremely inspiring experience

Here is a link to the Goethe Institut Website: https://www.goethe.de/en/index.html

@German_WHS